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Till Death Do Us Part? (reviewing Hendrik Hartog, Man and Wife in America: A History (2000); Norma Basch, Framing American Divorce: From the Revolutionary Generation to the Victorians (1999))
H-Net (2000)
  • Felice J Batlan, Chicago-Kent College of Law
In addressing the history of marriage and divorce in America, Hendrik Hartog and Norma Basch have raised the bar for legal historians to dizzying heights. At first glance, the books under review appear somewhat duplicative. Upon closer examination, however, they work beautifully, for they complement, and are in dialog with, each other. Indeed, it is fascinating to witness such fine historians examine some of the same sources, using different methodologies and bringing to the same material subtly disperate concerns. For an unusual intellectual treat, the two books should be read in tandem.
Man and Wife in America asks how nineteenthcentury law shaped men and women’s understanding of the meaning of marriage and their self-identities as husbands and wives. In answering this question, Hartog, professor of history at Princeton University, engages in a wide-ranging exploration of nineteenth-century law regarding husbands, wives, coverture, separation, divorce, bigamy, child custody, and judicial interpretation of the married women’s property acts. Hartog’s focus, however, is on separation – a limbo between marriage and divorce – as a starting place to explore the law of marriage. In the process, Hartog unpacks the myth that domestic relations law evolved, in a linear fashion, from feudal notions of the husband-headed household to modern companionate marriages. In doing so, Hartog offers a more complicated, less-easily categorized, narrative. Yet throughout his book, Hartog remains deeply concerned with legal doctrine and the process by which it develops.
Framing American Divorce, in contrast, focuses on divorce and its changing societal acceptance. In exploring the social, political, theoretical, and religious contexts of divorce and the debates that it engendered, Basch, professor of history at Rutgers University -Newark, locates its changing symbolic meaning in the period from 1770 to 1870. In doing so, she too disrupts a progressive narrative of steady liberalization. She writes, “If there is an overarching story to be told here, it lies somewhere between the almost silent legitimation of divorce in the post-Revolutionary era and the militant contestations it elicited in the wake of the Civil War” (Basch, p. 4). Framing American Divorce is divided into three principal sections, in which Basch uses different “analytical lenses” to examine divorce. The first section examines the theoretical understanding and debates regarding divorce in the revolutionary period and in the mid-nineteenth century; the second section examines actual divorce cases and analyzes from the perspective of gender what it meant for men and women to go to court seeking a divorce. The final section examines how divorce was portrayed by newspapers and in popular literature and the different gendered themes that each medium created. 
Publication Date
February, 2000
Citation Information
Till Death Do Us Part? H-Net (August 2000) (reviewing Hendrik Hartog, Man and Wife in America: A History (2000); Norma Basch, Framing American Divorce: From the Revolutionary Generation to the Victorians (1999)).